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Shannon Pakura, former Chief Social Worker of New ZealandAs I begin to work on a training resource manual about Family Group Decision Making (aka Family Group Conferencing), which will be a part in the growing library of small practical book on various aspects of restorative practices IIRP publishes, I'm finding a great deal of pleasure tapping in the IIRP on-line library (eForum collection) for source material. I was so struck by a talk by Shannon Pakura, former Chief Social Worker of New Zealand, that I thought I'd share some of it here.

She starts by saying, "Historians will probably reflect on New Zealand society in the 1970s and 1980s as a time of renaissance and revolution on a number of fronts." The family group conference was one fruit of this moment, and was a response to Maori raising concerns that their children were not being treated appropriately by state social services.

Pakura continues, "The Children, Young Persons and their Families Act 1989 that followed emphasizes the importance of family and cultural identity in handling matters relating to the care of children. Our act significantly proclaims the ideal that child welfare is primarily a private rather than a state concern. ... [The law] introduced the family group conference as the central process for decision making in statutory civil actions relating to the care or protection of children. In this process, extended families are encouraged to plan for safe outcomes for their children following full information from professionals about the nature of their concerns. Families are invited to work within their own cultural and familial milieu and the state agency and its professionals are expected to give effect to the family’s process by supporting plans they formulate and ‘by the provision of such services and resources, and the taking of such action and steps as are necessary…’ unless to do so would be ‘clearly impracticable or clearly inconsistent with the principles [of the act]’. ... Regarding the origins of this development, let me emphasize that the law changed primarily because Maori were dissatisfied with the way professionals made decisions about them."

Pakura points out that in addition to looking for a more culturally acceptable format for making decisions regarding children in protective services, there was also a financial need to reduce costs. Children who can be cared for within their own extended families and communities save money for the state because they don't need outside placement. But resources do also need to be made available to families.

Pakura also makes a lot of great comments in this paper about the Maori cultural framework and why FGC supports it. She discusses the institutional process and looks at mistakes that were made and how things might be done differently. Finally, she makes a personal plea:

"If the child at the centre of the intervention you are responsible for was the most important person in your life—your son, your daughter, your nephew or niece, your best friend’s child, or your mokopuna—you would want, as a minimum, for that child to remain connected with those whom they know and love, and that their sense of belonging would never be compromised. We can intervene in families’ lives but we do not control that family’s life—that is not our job and can never be our job.

"I have a three-year old grandson. He is the love of my life. He is a handsome wee man, he has sandy hair, and a Maori nose. He is naughty, he has been known to throw the odd tantrum, and there is no denying he is very spoilt.

"My plea to you as a fellow professional is:

"Should my Caleb ever come to your attention, should you ever have a professional role to play with him, should you be a social worker, or a lawyer or a co-ordinator or a judge—this is what you must do:

You must find his Nana;
You must find his aunts and uncles, cousins and friends;
You must find his hapu, iwi—even if he does not know them, they will know him;
You must make sure he is surrounded by those who love him and are connected to him;
You must not send him to strangers without our consent and involvement.
You must move heaven and earth to protect him, remembering he is mine not yours.
This is your job. This is the professional role. This is the role of the state!!!"

The paper was originally presented at the American Humane Association’s Family Group Decision Making Conference and Skills-Building Institute in 2004 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA. The paper was presented again at 'Building a Global Alliance for Restorative Practices and Family Empowerment, Part 3', the IIRP’s Sixth International Conference on Conferencing, Circles and other Restorative Practices in 2005 in Penrith, New South Wales, Australia.

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